Lilies of the field, just in time for Easter

April 09, 2009|By SUSAN REIMER

Before there were books and Bibles - and people who could read them - there were myths and stories and works of art that often used flowers to help explain events in religious history and nature.

The Easter lily has a starring role in such stories.

And the tall and graceful trumpet flower that is everywhere this weekend has a rich modern history as well.

The cultivar you will be seeing on church altars Sunday is probably the "Nellie White," named by lily grower James White for his wife. Perhaps 10 million to 15 million will be sold this Easter season, placing Easter lilies fourth behind poinsettias, mums and azaleas as the most popular potted plants.

These lilies were harvested last fall, and packed and shipped to commercial greenhouses where they are planted in pots and forced to bloom at exactly the right time - which is a trick unto itself since Easter can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25.

Most of these lilies are grown on farms along the California-Oregon border, which has the right soil and climate conditions to earn it the name "The Easter Lily Capital," according to several horticultural essays on the topic.

The Easter Lily (Lilium longiforum) is native to the southern islands of Japan, but in the late 1880s, it was cultivated in Bermuda, where Mrs. Thomas Sargent found them, fell in love with them and brought them to Philadelphia, where a local nursery man began forcing them for sale at Easter time.

The Eastern lily made it to Oregon in 1919 when World War I veteran Louis Houghton took a suitcase full of bulbs home with him and distributed them to his neighbors. The lily took hold and became a modest local hobby crop.

Still, Japan produced most of the lily bulbs - until the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the supply to the U.S. was cut off. Suddenly, growers in Oregon and California saw demand explode, and their hobby became the source of what they called "white gold."

Even after the war, when bulbs began to arrive again from Japan, they never measured up to the quality of flowers developed in the Pacific Northwest. However, producing these high-quality flowers proved to be so exacting that the number of growers quickly dwindled from 1,200 to a handful today.

The trumpet lily is perfectly paired with the Easter holiday. It symbolizes purity, virtue, innocence, hope and rebirth. And before it was a horticultural cash crop, the Easter lily had a powerful presence in art, literature, mythology and religion, most often in connection with motherhood.

One myth has lilies springing from the milk of Hera, the Greek Queen of Heaven, and from the milk of the Roman goddess Juno, which fell to the earth as she nursed Hercules.

The angel Gabriel is often depicted in art holding out a lily to the Virgin Mary as he announces that she will be the mother of the savior. In other works of art, saints are depicted bringing vases of lilies to Mary and the infant Jesus.

The story is also told that when the Virgin Mary's tomb was visited three days after her death, her body was gone and white lilies were there in its place.

The pure white petals of the flower symbolized her purity and the golden stamen her soul, and from that legend, perhaps, comes the expression "to gild the lily," meaning a pointless attempt to improve upon perfection.

Lilies are found in a myth concerning Adam and Eve as well; they are said to have sprung from her tears of remorse as she and Adam were driven from the Garden of Eden.

The Easter lily, with its tall, strong ladder of leaves and its gleaming trumpet flowers, seems worthy of all this myth and legend - and more.

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